St. Petersburg joins skating era
By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
ORLANDO -- Gary Sullivan thought he had died and gone to heaven.
"This is tremendous," the skateshop owner said as he surveyed the new Vans Skatepark on International Drive. "If we can re-create just a small portion of this, it will be a success."
Sullivan, the 43-year-old owner of St. Petersburg's Florida Oceansports, visited the park on its opening night in January. He hopes similar venues will come to St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg City Council members John Bryan, Richard Kriesman and Jamie Bennett are trying to make it happen, pushing to use money from a $14.4-million endowment to build parks that would cater to skateboarders.
For Sullivan, who watched the skateboard industry soar in the 1970s, die in the '80s and resurrect in the '90s largely in part by the popularity of ESPN's X-Games, the Vans Park showed what once was an underground sport has gone mainstream.
"It is safe to say that interest and participation are on the upswing," said Sullivan, whose First Avenue North shop has legions of loyal customers. "But the thing I keep hearing from parents is "When are we going to get a real park?' " All this is in planning stages, and no date has been set for formal action by the city council. The Vans Skatepark, one of only a handful of multimillion-dollar facilities across the United States and Canada catering to "extreme" athletes, features a 31,000-square-foot wooden indoor street course, a 40-foot competition-size "vert" ramp and the "Doe Boy," an above-ground bowl inspired by the Central Florida in-ground pools in which"old-school" boarders used to skate in the '70s.
ESPN, host of the X-Games, also is in the skatepark game, teaming with the Mills Corporation to build state-of-the-art public skateparks in malls around the country.
"These are ballfields of the 21st century," said Josh Krulewitz, spokesman for the network. "We wanted to get in on the grass roots level. Hopefully these parks will help grow viewers and possibly competitors for future X-Games."
The St. Petersburg effort has a similar philosophy.
"There are a lot of kids out there that are standing outside the baseball diamond looking in," Bryan said. "We have to see that their needs are met just like other athletes."
For three years St. Petersburg's skateboarders have made do with a small private/public park on Coquina Key.
"The time has come for a publicly funded, quality skatepark in St. Petersburg," said George Rahdert, a local attorney who started the Coquina Key Skatepark with his money. "We have outgrown our space and are ready to take it to the next level."
Rahdert, who often does First Amendment work for the Times, is one of several potential skatepark operators expected to bid for the chance to develop and run a downtown skatepark beneath the overpass of Interstate 275 east of Ninth Street.
Bryan said the I-275 site, which is close to an informal skateboarding site called "The Underground," would be one of four publicly funded skateparks in St. Petersburg, if he has a say.
"The underpass park would be for intermediate to advanced skateboarders," Bryan said. "There would be a nominal fee and supervision."
For the young (beginning to intermediate skaters) there would be three "feeder" parks: one at Fossil Park, one at Lake Maggiore and one on the west side of town.
"That way the older kids won't get bored, and the younger kids won't feel intimidated," Bryan said.
TASCO, a city-funded organization that runs teen programs, also is interested in bidding on the skatepark project.
"The key to success is making sure that there is a positive, safe atmosphere," said TASCO's Robert Norton. "That means supervision."
Sullivan, who doesn't allow any foul language or smoking at his skateshop, said all skateparks have a "vibe," be it good or bad.
"It is important that you start off right," he said. "It needs to be a place where everybody is welcome."
Bryan said he expects the city to begin work in the next few months on the Fossil Park site with about $150,000 in funds available from the sale of the city's Weeki Wachee property.
"I know these are tight times as far as the budget goes," he said. "But when it comes to kids, we have to find a way to pay."
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